If the U.S. Were a Christian Nation, Would that Make Christianity the Most Violent Religion in the World?

ziggy as soldier

becoming_christian_citizenHillsdale, Michigan. The Paris killings a few weeks ago have unleashed a number of reflections about Islam and its tendency toward violence. Robert Tracinski makes a point that I have seen in various places:

It is obviously true that all major religions have had violent periods, or periods in which the religion has coexisted with violence. Even those mellow pacifist Buddhists. These days, especially the Buddhists, who are currently fomenting a pogrom against a Muslim minority in Burma.

But in today’s context, it’s absurd to equate Islam and Christianity. Pointing to the Spanish Inquisition tends to undermine the point rather than confirm it: if you have to look back three hundred years to find atrocities, it’s because there are so few of them today. The mass crimes committed under the name of Islam, by contrast, are fresh and openly boasted about.

Having been to Turkey a couple of times and having seen how a secular Muslim society operates, I don’t want to make the mistake of generalizing about Islam on the basis of that experience, though it may be instructive to think about the capacity of Muslims to adapt to secular government especially when an economy is productive. On the other hand, I do wonder if folks in the West are blind to the violence that Christians continue to inflict on Muslim communities because we are conveniently comfortable with the nation-state. Our Christians kill non-Christians as soldiers rather than as non-state actors. Consider the case of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s movie, “American Sniper” (about which I have only read):

“I’m not the kind of person who makes a big show out of religion,” Kyle writes in the book. “I believe, but I don’t necessarily get down on my knees or sing real loud in church. But I find some comfort in faith, and I found it in those days after my friends had been shot up. Ever since I had gone through BUD/S (SEAL training), I’d carried a Bible with me. I hadn’t read it all that much, but it had always been with me. Now I opened it and read some of the passages. I skipped around, read a bit, skipped around some more. With all hell breaking loose around me, it felt better to know I was part of something bigger.”

In his book, Kyle wrote about how his family shaped his faith during his upbringing.

“My family had a deep faith in God. My dad was a deacon, and my mom taught Sunday school,” Kyle wrote. “I remember a stretch when I was young when we would go to church every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday evening. Still we didn’t consider ourselves overly religious, just good people who believed in God and were involved in our church. Truth is, back then, I didn’t like going a lot of the time.”

Islam is mentioned a few times in his book, though the faith doesn’t have a starring role in the film except when Kyle is asked to defend a shot after a wife claimed the victim was carrying a Quran. In his book, Kyle writes that he told an Army colonel: “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.” The Muslim call to prayer appears twice in the film, but it doesn’t probe the differences between Sunnis and Shiites the way Kyle does in his book.

“I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting,” Kyle wrote. “I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying f**k about them.”

A 2013 New Yorker profile mentions Kyle’s faith as a deep motivator in his work: “Like many soldiers, Kyle was deeply religious and saw the Iraq War through that prism,” journalist Nicholas Schmidle wrote. “He tattooed one of his arms with a red crusader’s cross, wanting ‘everyone to know I was a Christian.’”

Stories of Kyle’s shootings earned him the nickname “Legend.”

“I don’t spend a lot of time philosophizing about killing people. I have a clear conscience about my role in the war. I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one — not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins.”

Of course, Kyle is by no means representative of U.S. soldiers. But neither is it controversial to assume that many of the men and women who serve in the U.S. military are Christians and devout ones at that. William Cavanaugh, for instance, worries that Christians are so willing to serve the nation-state’s military:

Some Christians in the US use theological justifications for supporting war. More commonly, Christians support war for the same secularist reason that Americans as a whole support war: for “freedom,” a freedom that was born out of revulsion to the so-called “religious wars.” As I write in the introduction to my book, “In the West, revulsion to killing and dying in the name of one’s ‘religion’ is one of the principal means by which we become convinced that killing and dying in the name of the nation-state is laudable and proper.”

But isn’t it better for Christians to kill as members of a state’s military rather than as fighters in some sort of holy cause? Isn’t better that we count soldiers like Kyle not as Christian but as American? The reasons we do are fairly obvious and not necessarily unhealthy. The U.S. is not a religious polity (despite a lot of civil religion). The churches did not call for a crusade against Islamists or secularists in Iraq (even if they did support a military mission for the sake of freedom). The U.S. military requires no religious oaths (even if it does supply chaplains — who may be witches). The policy that governs the military comes from elected and appointed officials for whom religion is not a criterion for service (even though plenty of church members complain that politicians evacuate their religious convictions when holding public office).

This form of secularization is one that protects Chris Kyle from being classified as either a terrorist or a Crusader. That distinction between religion and rule is also at the basis of the modern nation-state, one that some conservatives also lament because of the way it takes over the loyalty and identity of its citizens (i.e., regards them chiefly as subjects of the state and disregards personal or higher loyalties).

I for one, as a Protestant and a conservative of some kind, think the secular nation-state deserves a little more appreciation than it receives from Christians and conservative. It’s powers are so vast that it can turn a religiously motivated killer into a mere state actor. And as a Christian I can say wholeheartedly, that’s a good thing. Of course, if you’re one of those Christians (the Augustinian and Constantinian kind) who used to regard the magistrate and the sword he wielded as a divine ordinance but prefer the Anabaptist option of pacifism, the nation-state is not such a good thing. But since I’d rather live in a world with Jimmy and Bunk rather than one policed by Stanley Hauewas, I’ll gladly settle for Islam as the most violent religion and the U.S. as the most militarized nation.

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